Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology

, Volume 43, Issue 4, pp 693–703 | Cite as

Negative Relational Schemas Predict the Trajectory of Coercive Dynamics During Early Childhood

  • Justin D. SmithEmail author
  • Thomas J. Dishion
  • Daniel S. Shaw
  • Melvin N. Wilson


Coercive family processes are germane to the development of problem behaviors in early childhood, yet the cognitive and affective underpinnings are not well understood. We hypothesized that one antecedent of early coercive interactions is the caregiver’s implicit affective attitudes toward the child, which in this article are termed relational schemas. Relational schemas have previously been linked to coercion and problem behaviors, but there has yet to be an examination of the association between relational schemas and trajectories of coercion during early childhood. We examined 731 indigent caregiver-child dyads (49 % female children) from a randomized intervention trial of the Family Check-Up. Predominantly biological mothers participated. A speech sample was used to assess relational schemas at age 2. Coercive interactions were assessed observationally each year between ages 2 and 4. Caregiver and teacher reports of children’s oppositional and aggressive behaviors were collected at age 7.5 and 8.5. Path analysis revealed that negative relational schemas were associated with less steep declines in coercion during this period, which in turn were predictive of ratings of oppositional and aggressive behaviors at age 7.5/8.5 after controlling for baseline levels, positive relational schemas, child gender, ethnicity, and cumulative risk. Intervention condition assignment did not moderate this relationship, suggesting the results represent a naturally occurring process. Given the link between persistent early coercion and later deleterious outcomes, relational schemas that maintain and amplify coercive dynamics represent a potential target for early intervention programs designed to improve parent–child relationships.


Affective attitudes Coercion Dynamic systems Relational schemas 



This research was supported by grant DA016110from the National Institute on Drug Abuse grant to Thomas Dishion, Daniel Shaw, and Melvin Wilson. Justin D. Smith received support from research training grant MH20012 from the National Institute of Mental Health, awarded to Elizabeth Stormshak, and from a seed grant from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Arizona State University, awarded to Thomas Dishion. The authors gratefully thank Cheryl Mikkola for editorial support, the observational coding team at the Child and Family Center, the rest of the Early Steps team in Eugene, Pittsburgh, and Charlottesville, and the families who have participated in the study.

Conflict of Interest

Drs. Smith, Dishion, Shaw, and Wilson report no financial interests or potential conflicts of interest.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Justin D. Smith
    • 1
    • 5
    Email author
  • Thomas J. Dishion
    • 1
    • 2
  • Daniel S. Shaw
    • 3
  • Melvin N. Wilson
    • 4
  1. 1.Prevention Research CenterArizona State UniversityPhoenixUSA
  2. 2.Child and Family CenterUniversity of OregonEugeneUSA
  3. 3.University of PittsburghPittsburghUSA
  4. 4.University of VirginiaCharlottesvilleUSA
  5. 5.Department of Psychology and NeuroscienceBaylor UniversityWacoUSA

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